ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Alevtina is one of several teachers who lost their jobs in St. Petersburg after being outed by an anti-gay activist. While most resigned quietly, the 27-year-old music teacher decided to fight her dismissal in court – an unusual step in Russia where gays have faced increasing pressure in recent years.
The rising anti-gay sentiment has coincided with the passage of a controversial Russian law that prohibits exposing children to gay “propaganda.” The law has made it easy to target teachers, because they work directly with children.
The hardening of lines against gays is thrown into stark relief by an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. The survey found that Russians’ tolerance of gays has plummeted in recent years, with 51 per cent of those surveyed late last year saying they would not want a gay neighbour. This was up from 38 per cent in 2012.
A majority of 63 per cent said gays should not be accepted in society, with only 20 per cent saying they should be accepted. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
The 2013 enactment of the gay propaganda law – which makes it illegal to provide information to children about homosexuality – was a turning point in the deterioration of Russian views of gays, said Nika Yuryeva, a spokeswoman for LGBT rights group Vykhod.
“I can see it even in my family, who are tolerant of my sexual choice, but now I also hear them speaking about the topic using the terms of Russian TV,” Yuryeva said. “To my mind, this law legitimizes the persecution of LGBT people, including the cases of their dismissals or forced resignations from schools.”
Alevtina, the music teacher, said she was stunned when the director of her school called her into his office last fall and urged her to quit.
“I left the director’s office almost in hysterics. I didn’t know what to do. I had so many creative plans with my students,” said Alevtina, who only gave her surname because she did not want her mother to know she was gay. “I’d put my soul into this work, and I also knew that I wasn’t guilty of anything.”
She refused to resign and was fired for “immoral behaviour incompatible with pedagogical activities” – effectively ending her teaching career. The school director could not be reached for comment, despite repeated calls to his office.
Alevtina said only a few close friends knew she was lesbian and she never attended gay pride rallies. Her sexual orientation was exposed by Timur Isayev, an anti-gay activist representing an organization called Parents of Russia.
In the past year, at least six teachers who were either gay or gay rights activists found their jobs threatened after being targeted by Isayev, said Kseniya Kirichenko, a legal support specialist at Vykhod. Three resigned, and Alevtina was the only one to take legal action, Kirichenko said.
Isayev’s anti-gay campaigning was cut short in December when he was arrested on charges of stealing money from a firm where he worked in 2004. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
His arrest, however, has not made things easier for Alevtina, whose appeal is pending. Her lawyer, Dmitry Bartenev, said the teacher is asking to be reinstated at the school and to receive compensation. The court hearings were closed to the public at the teacher’s request.
Homosexuality has increasingly been portrayed on Russian state television as part of a decadent, immoral Western culture that threatens traditional values. And the AP-NORC poll also showed a sharp rise in anti-Western sentiments.
Those reporting an unfavourable view of the United States rose to 65 per cent from 25 per cent in 2012, while those with an unfavourable view of the European Union rose to 49 per cent from 11 per cent.
The AP-NORC Center poll was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with fieldwork for the in-person survey by GfK Russia from Nov. 22 to Dec. 7., 2014. It was based on 2,008 in-person interviews with a nationally representative random sample of Russians age 18 and older.
Funding for the survey came from NORC at the University of Chicago.
Online: AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.